Timeless Problems

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“Time Stands Still” opened in New York on January 21. It is one of those theatrical gems that invites you to approach it from several directions, and always rewards you with something memorable. Though set in the aftermath of a Middle-Eastern conflict, it is not a play about the politics of war, per se. Instead, it is a play about occupations, about relationships, about gender roles, and ultimately about the desire to make one’s life count for something.

As the play begins, James (Brian d’Arcy James) is helping Sarah (Laura Linney) into their New York loft apartment. Sarah’s leg is encased in a full-length brace, her arm is in a sling, and dozens of angry red shrapnel scars cover her face and neck. We know immediately that these are serious people whose lives have Meaning. What they do Matters.

We soon learn that James and Sarah are foreign war correspondents; he a writer and she a photographer. Sarah has been injured in a roadside bombing that killed their local guide, a young man whose own family had already been killed in the war. James was in the States during the attack, recovering from emotional injuries suffered during the course of their work, and he feels guilty about not being there when she was injured.

Richard (Eric Bogosian), Sarah and James’s editor and dearest friend, soon arrives to welcome Sarah home, bringing along his sweet, bubbly, and very young new girlfriend, Mandy (Alicia Silverstone). Mandy’s get-well gift, a pair of helium balloons, is ridiculously childish and out of place in this serious, life-threatened setting with serious, world-changing people. When Mandy announces cheerfully that she is an “event planner,” Sarah responds with a barely concealed smirk and roll of the eyes. Clearly, in this long-established social group where occupations Matter, Mandy has no substance. She is Fluff.

Relationships apparently matter too. Sarah and James are trying to decide where their relationship is headed next. He proposes marriage and a more traditional life. It is time to Settle Down, Start a Family. Before accepting the proposal, however, Sarah tearfully confesses that while James was in the States, she and their guide, Tarik, became lovers. James confesses that he already knew — something about the tone of her voice and her emails while they were apart. Yet he forgives her. Like the self-serving Torvald in Ibsen’s “Doll’s House,” James thinks his forgiveness is Magnanimous and Open Minded.

But forgiveness is not what Sarah seeks. Far from it. Her tears are borne of grief, not shame. Her friend and coworker, a man she loved, was blown up right beside her. She needs compassion, empathy, the sharing of grief. After all, Tarik had been James’s guide too! But James just wants it all behind them.

Though he and Sarah were not married when she fell into Tarik’s embrace, they were in a committed relationship of nearly nine years. It is perhaps understandable, though despicable, when he confesses his first reaction to the news of Tarik’s death. It was relief.

Compare Mandy’s reaction to Sarah’s accident. As it turns out, Richard and Sarah had once been lovers as well, 20 years earlier. They continued as colleagues after the romance ended, and when she met James, the friendship expanded to include him. For nearly a decade they have been the Three Musketeers. Now sweet, innocent Mandy is trying to join the group. When Mandy heard of Sarah’s life-threatening injuries, her reaction was not relief. “When we heard that you were hurt,” she says, “I prayed for you. I said, ‘Please, please, God, oh please, help Sarah get better. Please, God. Richard loves her so much.”

There lies the heart of the conflict, and the understated theme of the play: Amid all their angst about Important Work bringing Important Issues to light, Mandy demonstrates true love. Sarah could easily represent a threat to Mandy’s relationship with Richard, but she wants Sarah to get better, because she knows how much Sarah’s friendship means to the man she loves. If it matters to him, it matters to her.

Gender roles are another important issue in this play, and they are presented subtly and effectively, not as separable topics for social commentary but as matters related to the basic problems of human action, set in the framework of time. The man wants to marry and start a family; the woman is driven by ambition to make her life count. Her single-eyed focus on her career makes “settling down” seem too much like merely “settling.” James stays home, keeps house, and writes movie reviews while Sarah takes pictures of people in distressed situations. Reversing ordinary roles in this manner turns the traditional conflict between home and career into a universal dilemma rather than a feminist cause.

The title contains an ironic metaphor for the action of the play. The camera can make time stand still; it can tell, or attempt to tell, a whole story in a single shot. But in real life, time marches on, choices must be made, and indecision, we often find, is the same as deciding “no.” In the practice of photography, Sarah’s focus on her work is clear and true, but the rest of her life is a blur, seen from an emotional distance. Perhaps the problem could be solved by a simple f-stop adjustment — but Sarah will not stop to make one.

The acting and direction in this four-character play are superb. Stage lights catch the glint of tears in Laura Linney’s eyes as she describes her relationship with Tarik. She leans her injured neck and cheek subtly toward her houseguests, daring them to stare at her scars, which she wears as proudly as medals. Yet when she and James are alone, she covers them with a sweater to assuage the guilt she knows he feels for having returned early to the United States. With three Oscar nominations, two Tony nominations and three Emmys to her credit, Linney moves effortlessly between stage and screen, recognizing

the need to go large for the stage while never going over the top. It is a completely believable performance.

Alicia Silverstone, best known for her screen work in such teen flicks as “Clueless” and “The Crush,” could have found herself hopelessly out of her league on the Broadway stage. But she is a joy to watch as the delightfully naive, totally honest young girlfriend. Her eyes dart searchingly from one side of the stage to the other, sometimes try- ing to comprehend what the others are saying, but more often urging the older and presumably wiser Musketeers to understand what she is trying to say. She reminds us that Planning Events is perhaps the reason Wars Matter. It is to preserve the ordinary events of our lives and our culture — weddings, births, business meetings, holidays, celebrations — that we go to war. While Sarah photographs death and suffering, Mandy celebrates life. What she really can’t comprehend is why the others don’t get it.

In “The Poisonwood Bible” (1998), Barbara Kingsolver also addresses this contrast between those who go to war and those who stay at home: “We whistle while Rome burns, or we scrub the floor, depending. Don’t dare presume there’s shame in the lot of a woman who carries on. On the day a committee of men decided to murder [prime minister Patrice Lumumba] what do you suppose Mama Mwanza [a tribal woman] was doing? Was it different the day after? Of course not. Was she a fool, then, or the backbone of history?”

Only time will tell. But it does not stand still.

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